New Blog: The Other Side of Fear

Please check out my new blog over at donnalamberti.com.  It’s called The Other Side of Fear, and I’ll be blogging there about my adventures in writing.  I will still be blogging here about teaching and education.  Cheers!

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Beware of Phineas Nigellus Syndrome

IMG_5976Once every couple of years, I reread at least one or two of the Harry Potter books.  Until this summer, I had never actually sat down and reread the entire series from start to finish since the very first time I did so years ago.  I love the series, but I also dislike the bittersweet feeling I have when I get to the end and know that there’s no more books to come.  By only reading one or two of the books, I can avoid that feeling for the most part.  Early this summer, however, I decided to reread them all from start to finish mostly because my husband and I took a trip to Universal Studios Orlando, and I wanted to remember all the little details to that magical world J. K. Rowling created before stepping into Diagon Alley or onto the Hogwarts Express.

I always believed that my favorite book in the entire series was either The Prisoner of Azkaban or The Half-Blood Prince, and these still might be my favorite books personally.  As a teacher, however, I realized that the book that speaks to me most professionally is The Order of the Phoenix.  When I reread it, I realized that it has so much to say to teachers – young and old, inexperienced and experienced.  This is probably not a fluke given that Rowling was once herself a teacher.

In Phoenix, Rowling contrasts two very different Hogwarts professors and headmasters: Phineas Nigellus and Albus Dumbledore.  Phineas Nigellus is the least popular headmaster of Hogwarts in the history of the school, and he generally dislikes his chosen profession. He is snarky and sarcastic and lacks patience, especially with young people.  He thinks adolescents are too self-absorbed and has little sympathy for their feelings.  He says, “You know, this is precisely why I loathed being a teacher! Young people are so infernally convinced that they are absolutely right about everything.”  And later, he continues, “Never try to understand the students. They hate it. They would much rather be tragically misunderstood, wallow in self-pity, stew in their own —”  You get the picture.  One wonders if Phineas Nigellus always felt this way, or if he started out genuinely wanting and hoping to enjoy his career in education only to get worn down and turn bitter.

Then, there is Albus Dumbledore, the most famous of the Hogwarts headmasters and the most beloved. Dumbledore makes serious mistakes, pushes Harry away throughout the book, and deeply hurts Harry in the process.  In attempting to explain to Harry why he did this, he says, “Harry, I owe you an explanation…An explanation of an old man’s mistakes.  For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age.  Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels.  But old men are guilty if they forget what it is to be young…and I seem to have forgotten lately…”  (Emphasis mine.) Phineas Nigellus has forgotten and continues to forget what it is to be young and thus wants children and teens to act like the adults that they are not and cannot possibly be; Dumbledore forgot this for a time as well, but he remembers eventually and treats Harry and the other students accordingly.

I believe all teachers, unless they are very special indeed, “forget what it is to be young” from time to time.  We are like Dumbledore, expecting our students to know and understand how adults think and feel.  When they do not, as they cannot, we can become impatient and frustrated with them as Phineas Nigellus does.  The trick is to catch our mistake before it has gone too far, before we go from impatience to bitterness, from experiencing joy and a healthy sense of exhaustion in our chosen profession to experiencing just plain exhaustion.  The trick is to catch ourselves before we are in the throes of a full-blown case of Phineas Nigellus Syndrome.

I’m sure some think that younger, less-experienced teachers have an advantage in warding off the disease, a natural immunity to Phineas Nigellus Syndrome.  But beware!  There is no direct correlation between age and experience and the onset of the disease.  We all know those teachers with 40+ years of experience who understand their students better than the 22-year-old teacher straight out of college.  It is not a matter of simply being “young at heart” either.  I have known teachers who were never “young at heart” even when they were young, and yet they seem to be able to identify with their teen students quite well, and their students respond to them in return.

So what is it exactly that keeps the syndrome at bay for some but swallows others whole?  The answer is both simple and incredibly difficult.  It is empathy.  It is the ability to take on the perspective of another for a brief moment.  For some people, this comes naturally; for others, this is more challenging.  The good news is that empathy is learned, and it can be learned at any age.  (And those of us in the humanities have a leg up on this one.  We history and literature teachers teach empathy all day long by having our students take on the perspective of a historical figure or a character in a novel.)

Do not fear if the syndrome has already gained a hold on you.  It had a firm grip on me this past year.  Phineas breathed down my neck daily, and it has not been easy to shake him off.  I hate to sound cliché, but the first step is recognizing that you, and not the students, have the problem.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect students to act responsibly, to act with maturity, to act selflessly.  We should expect and demand they do so within their zone of proximate development, to borrow the terminology of Vygotsky.  The problem arises when we, like Phineas, expect them to act with the mature feelings and thoughts of an adult, way outside their zone.  Once you have identified that Phineas is lurking too close for comfort, the next step is to practice empathy.  For just a moment, remember.  Remember what it was to be young, for as Dumbledore says, “old men are guilty if they forget what it is be young.”  And finally, take a moment to appreciate when a student truly does act with exceptional maturity, with exceptional responsibility.  Thank him, praise him to his parents, and tuck that memory away for the day when you feel Phineas’s presence.

Best wishes for the start of a new school year.  May you keep Phineas Nigellus at arm’s length the whole year through!